News flash: The Miami Heat are a better coached team than the Los Angeles Lakers. It showed in the fourth quarter of their Wednesday night matchup. Erik Spoelstra has been with the Heat organization since 1995 — its head coach since 2008. Following nine seasons as an NBA player, Darvin Ham was an assistant with three teams over 12 years before getting his first head coaching job with the Lakers in 2022. The team in the gold jerseys stayed competitive for most of the night on Wednesday, but the Heat pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 110-96 victory — sans Jimmy Butler.
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The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Jovan Buha reported on Thursday that there is some discontent in the Lakers’ locker room. There are players not happy with Ham’s constant lineup tinkering. The unit that he started the game with on Wednesday — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, Cam Reddish, and Taurean Prince — was the Lakers’ 10th different starting lineup this season. They got smoked in the first quarter by the Heat, going 0-for-7 from the 3-point line with 10 turnovers.
The last two losses for the Lakers have been rough. On New Year’s Eve, they lost by 20 points to the New Orleans Pelicans. These recent wide margins of victory might be able to be explained away by Rui Hachimura’s calf injury. However, the Lakers’ biggest problem during this post-IST Championship losing stretch is they cannot close out games. Some of that is coaching, but most of it is the roster.
Wednesday night is an example of their late-game issues. The Heat put the game away midway through the fourth quarter with a quick and unspectacular 5-0 run. The Lakers had just cut the deficit to six points after a moonshot by Austin Reaves from three and a monster alley-oop thrown down by Anthony Davis for his 28th point of the night.
On the next play, Bam Adebayo exposed a mismatch in the paint being guarded by Taurean Prince. The Heat then played suffocating defense against the Lakers on the other end of the floor, forcing a 24-second violation. On offense, Duncan Robinson buried a 3-pointer and the Heat took an 11-point lead. The Lakers called a timeout, and would get the deficit under double digits only once the rest of the game.
The Lakers are the fourth-worst fourth-quarter scoring team in the NBA — ironically the Heat are third worst. Combine that with committing the 10th most turnovers per game, and ranking 24th in offensive rating, Los Angeles is a team that cannot find a bucket when it needs it. And the Lakers are having these problems with an active Anthony Davis. In the last 12 games, he is attempting nearly 20 shots per game, eight free throws, and averaging 30 points per game on 58.3 percent from the field.
During the 2023 playoffs, Davis was criticized for inconsistent offense, but that was not why they got swept by the Denver Nuggets. The Lakers’ shot-making was simply not good enough. Through those four games, three players from the Nuggets made 10-plus 3-pointers. The only player from the Lakers to do that was Reaves. Hachimura and James made nine and five, respectively.
The Lakers clawed their way into the Play-In Tournament last season after revamping their roster on the fly last winter. They changed the team from one that did not make sense, to a huge one that resembled a traditional NBA squad. In the playoffs, the Lakers were able to exploit a size advantage against the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. They did not have that size advantage against a frontcourt of Nikola Jokić, Michael Porter Jr., and Aaron Gordon.
A third of the way through a new season, the tape is out there on the Lakers. They brought in Taurean Prince, Christian Wood, and Gabe Vincent during the offseason to try to improve the offense. None of them are dead-eye 3-point threats. Vincent was a surprise burying threes for the Heat during the 2023 playoffs. He has played in only five games this season.
Wood and Prince both shoot well over 35 percent, but they don’t average enough attempts. Duncan Robinson is a knockdown 3-point shooter. His hot fourth quarter was key for the Heat on Wednesday. He shoots 43.4 percent from behind the arc and attempts seven per game.
Along with the Lakers’ shooting woes, they do not have a second offensive creator to go with a now 39-year-old James. That is why they brought back D’Angelo Russell on a two-year deal. However, Ham did not play him in crunch time during the playoffs and the team was better for it.
So, yes, the Lakers’ head coach is probably tinkering with the lineup and rotation too much. But he is doing so because he is trying to best figure out how to maximize the roster he has been given. This is a team of largely veteran players whose games are not going to be able to be changed. Reaves continues to improve, but he is a solid contributor to a closing lineup. He is not a player to give the ball to and ask him to win the game regularly.
Ham is doing the best he can with the roster that is currently assembled. It would be nice for the Lakers if he were better, but as currently constructed, they are a slightly above-average NBA team. Unless they add some juice to the offense that is more than Hachimura, Russell, and Vincent returning from injury, this season will end faster than their previous one did. There is no change they can make at head coach that will avoid that fate.